Friday, September 26, 2014

Songs of the Siren on the River Styx

Jeff Buckley's family is producing a bio-pic on the late singer's life, provisionally entitled Mystery White Boy. Penny Dreadful star Reeve Carney has been cast as Buckley and Medium/ Gospel of Thomas channel Patricia Arquette has been cast as his mother. 

For those of you who may not know, Buckley died by drowning in a river in Memphis, TN in 1997, just as he was celebrating the completion of a new group of songs for the follow-up to his 1994 breakthrough album, Grace.

I don't know if they'll include former Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser in the story; if they've read my posts on Buckley's relationship with the Siren, they may very well not. It's not a story a family would want to tell. 

But it's the only story that's true.

It's also a story I wanted to revisit not only in light of the news on the film but in light of some rather bizarre omens and portents I've recently discovered within (and without) the Cocteau Twins' catalog itself. It's been almost five years since I wrote in depth on this story so I felt the time was right to revisit it.

Longtime readers will be familiar with some of the synchronicities I uncovered earlier-- one I still can't believe myself-- but as it happens this tragedy is like all great mythic tragedies; it seems to have been a long time in coming. The players involved were merely acting out roles written for them long before their grandparents were born. 

There's one particular detail in this story that will leave no doubt in your mind as to the truth of this statement.

If anyone outside rock snob circles knows Liz Fraser it's from 'Teardrop', the song she recorded with Massive Attack, which was used as the theme song for the long-running medical drama House, MD. Some may know her singing from the Lord of the Rings films, some may know her songs from The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson's adaption of the novel about a murdered girl wandering through the afterlife. 

David Lynch fans may know her version of Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren" (a song he tried to use in Blue Velvet) from Lost Highway, which featured- you guessed it- Patricia Arquette. That song was released on the album appropriately titled It'll End in Tears, a supergroup effort of the British indie label 4AD.

But unless you were there, you'd never know the nuclear-bomb effect she had when her banshee howl first dropped onto the rock cognoscenti's consciousness with 1983's Head Over Heels LP. It wasn't as if an alien had landed and joined a rock group, but...

No, scratch that. 

It was exactly as if an alien had landed and joined a rock group. 

Not everyone heeded her siren's call, but many of those who did found themselves buying up every scrap of vinyl her voice could be found on, so much so that the Cocteau Twins dominated the independent charts in the UK for much of the early to mid 1980s.

The Melody Maker newspaper declared her, "The Voice of God." Treasure won the NME Readers Poll for "Best LP of 1984," beating out storied competition like The Unforgettable Fire, Born in the USA and The Smiths' debut. Even a nowhere indie band like Felt had a UK hit ("Primitive Painters") simply because Fraser yowled on the choruses.

The Siren and Sideshow Bob

I myself was a tireless evangelist for the Siren. I had been a big Kate Bush fan but literally overnight Bush seemed hopelessly twee and upper class in comparison to this elemental power, which had Kate's soaring beauty but a undertone of ancient terror that only descends upon a host. It can never be learned or practiced. 

I enjoyed watching friends sitting stunned as they first heard that yowling. "Alien" (most often), "ghost", "witch", "mermaid", and "fairy" were the terms you'd hear people use to describe her. Not quite human. 

Celebrities like Robert Plant, Prince, Madonna and the Cure's Robert Smith were known to be fans, others surely among them (obviously directors like Lynch, Jackson, Alan Rickman and Gregg Araki). Certainly artists like Bjork, The Cranberries, Sinead O'Connor, Grimes and The Sundays were hugely influenced by Fraser's fractal vocal acrobatics.

The Twins' first Los Angeles appearance put the audience in a state not seen since Azusa Street, according to reports at the time. Metal bands as unlikely as Jane's Addiction and Type O Negative would raid the Twins' catalog for riffs and take them straight to the bank.

Jeff Buckley heard the Siren's call too, smitten by her version of his father's signature song. He sought her out, little realizing that Muses, Sirens and other such spirits find broken vessels to express themselves through.

At the time he met her, the Siren was in the middle of a personal meltdown springing from undealt-with childhood sexual trauma and he was a young up-and-comer who soon realized he was in way, way over his fucking head. He inevitably --and fatefully-- broke her heart, leading to the Cocteau's Twinlights EP (as in "we are twin lights…"), filled with Fraser's painfully desperate pleas to Buckley. 

A short film called Rilkean Dreams (Fraser compared Buckley to the poet Rilke) was made in 1994 as a promo for the EP, named after the heart-rending "Rilkean Heart." It's hardly a promo as much as it is a nakedly confessional video love-letter to Buckley, with Fraser explicitly apologizing in song for being too needy and clingy here and then accusing Buckley of being selfish and immature there. But it's the symbolism that gets you.

The opening shot of Rilkean Dreams is of a slowly rushing river

Followed by a sunset. 

If ever there was an argument for teaching the art of divining omens and portents in school, that's pretty much it.

The emotional distress Fraser was under came at the worst possible time, after the Cocteaux had signed to a new label who were giving them a major promotional push, booking them on Jay Leno's and Jools Holland's shows, among others. Fraser's singing entered what fans came to call the "dolphin in distress" period, a bizarre and unmusical, Yoko-like series of clicks, grunts and yowls. It was devastating to witness for those who had worshipped at her feet only a few years before. 

It was the vision of a woman struggling to exorcise whatever wraith had once possessed her. The band tried to explain it away as an artist trying to expand her palette or some such nonsense, but the excuses were laid bare when Fraser was hospitalized for a full-scale nervous breakdown at the end of tour.

Her singing on record had already become increasing wispy and ethereal as she sang an octave out of her natural range, almost evaporating entirely on the band's final two albums. The euphoric, ecstatic yowling that literally electrified listeners in the 80s was barely heard, if at all.

At some point Fraser and Buckley reconciled, as detailed here. The Cocteaus toured again in 1996 and judging from many recordings, Fraser's voice had returned to its mid-80s peak form. Buckley and Fraser even recorded a duet, but somehow they split again, and Buckley decamped to Memphis to fight a case of writer's block while maintaining a relationship with another singer. 

He should have learned from his last experience.

The details of his death sound exactly like what happens when powerful forces detatch themselves from myth and legend and decide to run rampant through consensus reality. 

Don't take my word for it- watch the video.  

I know that these things happen, it's just that this is the most compelling example of that reality I can think of at the moment. You may have other examples to contribute- I welcome you to do so in the comments.*

Just in case you missed the reference, this is the video to the song Fraser was recording while Buckley was dying, a song she had written about him. Not long after his death, Fraser would walk out on her band forever.

In hindsight, I am not even remotely surprised. Something very, very powerful took possession of Fraser, used her to express itself and as has become clear in recent years, moved on to another host. 

Her lyrics may have been unintelligible but the meaning of her songs was always clear- it was primal energy unleashed from a time perhaps before there were human beings as we understand the term today. These are forces that we can only sense the contours of, but are not allowed to truly know. Even mainstream rock critics sensed a very old religion at work, perhaps old in the Theosophical sense. 

Songs like 'Persephone' make the heaviest metal sound tame, because Fraser doesn't sound like she is singing about the Queen of Hell, she sounds like she has become her. The ancients would understand. 

One human being can harness that for so long. We're just not made to channel that kind of energy. I know of no performer who was able to sustain the kind of intensity the Cocteaux unleashed in that 1982 to late 1990 period, releasing seven albums and ten EPs, nearly all of indispensible quality. 

Even The Beatles were done in by it.

Time has subsequently shown just how fragile Elizabeth Fraser is. I don't want to diminish her talent as an artist in her own right, but it's clear that who she is now and who she was then are two entirely separate realities.


I realized that I hadn't really explained the Cocteau Twins' music in previous Siren articles, so here I will offer up capsule reviews of their discography and comment on the chronology of the Siren drama as it unfolded. As you will see, the music itself was an integral part of the drama; the story and the songs cannot be separated. 

You need to understand the context of the music and the effect it had to understand how the drama unfolded. This is especially important now, since kids have no sense how much music mattered to people in the 80s and early 90s. I'll review their discography and place it in the context of the overall Siren drama. 

Fasten your seatbelts- I've uncovered some new information that will leave no doubt as to the forces at work in this drama.

Garlands (1982) Fraser picked up Siouxsie's witch-broom just as the Banshees were headed off into Top of the Popsville. This is a deeply divisive album with many Cocteaux fans (the leadoff track is entitled 'Blood Bitch') but I love it. It sits perfectly alongside Unknown Pleasure, What's This For?, 154, Metal Box, and of course, Juju- a dark, occultic, throbbing post-punk filled with rumbling Rickenbacker bass chords, Robin Guthrie's guitars with stompboxes cranked to 11, and tribal drum machine patterns.

All of that is topped with Fraser's warbling and yipping and precocious swatches of lyrics, ripe to bursting with the imagery of ancient nightmares, science fiction and good old-fashioned Celtic witchiness. At this point in the game, Guthrie's shrieking leads are the star of the show. One could easily imagine Roman soldiers shuddering in their armor, hearing these kind of banshee wails over moors lit only by occasional bursts of spectral foxfire.

Even the record cover is witchy- a half-naked man seized by a bolt of eldritch energy in a dark Scottish village. The extended version adds crucial cuts like 'Dear Heart' and 'Perhaps Some Other Aeon'. Hard to believe this is the same band that recorded Four Calendar Cafe

Head Over Heels (1983) Probably my favorite of the studio albums, for sentimental reasons if nothing else. This sounds like 1983 in a way a 1983 record should, so don't listen to whining about the mix. This is also a light-year leap over Garlands, with melodies replacing mere incantations and Fraser's instrument in full bloom. 

We're still smack dab in post-punk territory, with Guthrie layering bass chords on top of distortion-drenched arpeggios and Killing Joke drum patterns. This is a huge-sounding record with a wide stylistic range, and Fraser never sounded as gloriously womanly as she does here ever again. Key cuts: 'Sugar Hiccup', 'In the Gold Dust Rush', 'In Our Angelhood'.  

Treasure (1984) Another huge leap, but perhaps also more of a consolidation. The try-anything spirt of Heels gives way to a trademark Cocteau sound, all sleighbells and choral sample patchs, pounding beatboxes and interlocking post-punk guitar and bass chords.

There's plenty of variety, though- the nailbiting shrieker 'Persephone', the stately harpsichord waltz 'Beatrix', and the ridiculously erotic, tongue-in-your-ear fuckscape 'Otterley', to name a few.  The addition of Simon Raymonde on bass and keyboards adds a lot of music school depth to the proceedings. 

This was released in 1984 but seemed to exist every time at once. Everyone who discovered it assumed it was brand new. And everyone who discovered it assumed it belonged to them alone. Bonus factoid: Buckley used to cover leadoff track "Ivo" at his club gigs in New York.

Omen unheeded: That glorious, angelic postpunk/disco track 'Lorelei' (which comes right after 'Ivo') is named after a water-witch who lured men to their deaths on the River Rhine. 

The Pink Opaque (1986): This compilation was put together to introduce the Twins to the American market, culling various EP, single and album cuts, but is essential in the way those old 60s comps are. In fact, this might be your best place to start if you're a Twins novitiate. Every single note on this album is crucial in a way music no longer is to young people. You may not know exactly what Fraser is on about here but she's obviously extraordinarily passionate about it.

In fact, the leadoff track, the ritualistic hymn 'The Spangle Maker', is worth what people used to pay for albums by itself. In fact, the final sixty seconds of 'The Spangle Maker', in which Fraser erupts into a series of blood-curdling howls like a particularly aroused ancient Maenad (she inspired a lot of these kinds of metaphors back in the day), while Guthrie wrenches the clap of creation out of his guitar with an e-bow, is worth your week's salary. 

Victorialand (1986) After four years of hammering euphoria, a looping curveball from a band who specialized in them; a pastoral serving of alien folk with layer upon layer of treated guitar acting as primary accompaniment for Fraser's little-girl-in-the-garden fairy tale songs. The sense of playfulness and joy is almost palpable here as Frasier and Guthrie use their prodigious talents (Raymonde was off producing the second This Mortal Coil album) to construct a fantasy of a childhood they never had living in grim Grangemouth, Scotland. 

Then a curveball within a curveball: after a happy day in a forest clearing, the darkness of the gods descends like a sheet of ice for the album's closer, 'The Thinner the Air'. It's as if you can see the black clouds roll in as the chords change from carefree and major to hopelessly bleak and minor. After a Greek-like chorus prepares the way, Fraser chills the bones with a piercing, almost primeval solo that reeks of dark portents and terrible tragedies to come, as if Cassandra herself is riding this horse now.† 

It's a stunning turnaround to an album whose song titles such as 'Fluffy Tufts' and 'Lazy Calm' accurately describe its mood. 

Yet another omen that went unheeded.

The Moon and the Melodies (1986) After the curveball, a changeup: ambient pianist Harold Budd is enlisted for an LP that features four glorious rave-ups and four ambient chillouts (a definite portent of things to come post-Cocteau). Budd, whose since worked extensively with Guthrie, fits the Twins like a glove. In fact his playing is remarkably similar to Raymonde's. His elegant chords add a bit of maturity to the Twins' ecstatic hammering, an effect that would have a huge influence in the days to come. 

The four full band tracks here- along with 'Crushed' (released the following year on a compilation album) would mark the end of the Cocteau Twins' Golden Age-- that age of "oh my fucking god, what the hell is this music"-- but their international profile would only rise with the following two albums.  

Omens ignored: "Sea, Swallow Me" and "She Will Destroy You."

Blue Bell Knoll (1988) Or Blue Bell Knowles, as I like to call it. Apparently the Cocteau Twins think their fans take 35 minutes to have sex because it seems as if they set out to make the ultimate post-punk fuck music with Blue Bell Knoll. The basic effect is like having Fraser's tongue in your ear for a half-hour and change, the vocals are that erotic. 

The entire production seems engineered to be as lush and languid as possible, with even the minor key songs dripping with palpable sensuality. Imagine if late 70s ABBA took a shit-ton of molly after being abducted by aliens and you pretty much have Blue Bell Knoll nailed. The pounding drums and the slashing guitars are MIA, but the catharsis has merely been channeled through another route. I curled into a fetal position the first time I heard this album, quite involuntarily. It hurt, it was so gorgeous.

Omen ignored: 'A Kissed-Out Red Floatboat'- A passenger aboard the American Queen riverboat, famous for its large red waterwheel, discovered Buckley's body floating in the river.

Bonus omen: The bluebell's "knoll" or ring was an omen of death, according to old British legend.

Heaven or Las Vegas (1990) Pre-Nirvana alt.rock was the true Golden Age of the movement. You had a real diversity of music, with different flavors and styles besides irritable white dudes with guitars and long hair living out their Lynyrd Skynyrd fantasies. 

On MTVs 120 Minutes you'd see a whole range of styles and flavors, And it wasn't just a boys' club, women were well-represented; that was part of what made the scene "alternative" to mainstream rock. It was into this ferment that Heaven or Las Vegas dropped and finally the world was ready for the Cocteaux and they were ready for the world. 

Heaven or Las Vegas is the last great Cocteau Twins album; it has a dizzying range of styles, from the slow funk jam of 'Pitch the Baby', to the old school postpunk-flavored single 'Iceblink Luck' (very much a nod to tracks like 'In Our Angelhood' and 'Because of Whirljack') to the almost quintessential Cocteau title track, a song square in the tradition of early 80s stunners like 'Sugar Hiccup' and 'Pearly Dewdrops Drops'.

But the bottom was about to drop out; Raymonde and Guthrie were nursing serious drug problems (gee, hard to imagine this band using drugs) and Fraser's recent motherhood was dredging up long-repressed horrors from her own childhood. 

Nirvana would come along at the end of the Cocteaux' world tour and the alt.rock scene would soon look more like 1971 than 1991. Ecstatic warbling was out, miserable narcissism was in, and dick-waving tantrums would reign supreme for the next three years. 

Omens ignored: OK, here's where this story gets insane.

The 8th and 9th songs on this album are 'Wolf in the Breast' and the almost unbearably mournful 'Road, River and Rail' (lyric: "like mother's daughter/to fish, you fly"). 

Jeff Buckley drowned in the Wolf River in Memphis, which runs parallel to a railroad and is crossed by Interstate 40. 

The Wolf River is on the 89th Meridian West.

The neighborhood at the end of the Wolf River is named Frayser.

Now please go watch the first minute of Elizabeth Fraser's video love letter to Buckley again.

Note that Las Vegas, the nominal city of the album in question, also has a glass pyramid. I can't think of any other American cities besides Memphis and Las Vegas that do. Is Buckley's place of dying the "Heaven" or Las Vegas the title unwittingly alludes to?

If so, then how appropriate then that these omens would precede the time Buckley met Fraser, for the making of this next album....

Four Calendar Cafe (1993) The alt.rock scene began to shake off the trailer park doldrums in late 1993 and 1994, with the original grunge bands moving away from two-finger tantrums into more challenging territory and new movements emerging such as neo-punk, trip-hop and techno. 

But the Cocteau Twins were not doing as well. Guthrie and Fraser's marriage had dissolved, Fraser's romance with Buckley would begin and end that year and leave her shattered, and she began having trouble with her vocal chords. 

In that light, why on earth she would choose to sing an octave above her range while she was experiencing throat problems is beyond me. Perhaps it was a commercial consideration, given the fact the band had signed to a new label and Irish singer Enya was finding success with a similar style around that time. Helpful hint: If you ever wonder why your favorite band ever went down some inexplicably commercial route, drug bills are usually a pretty good answer.

Four Calendar Cafe is a pleasant enough 90s pop album and somewhat of a return to the aural sensuality of Blue Bell Knoll, but it's a world away from the revelations of the mid- 80s Cocteaus. You keep waiting for Fraser to get out of Enya-mode and let it rip and she never does. She only sings in her natural mezzo on the closing track, and that's only on the choruses. 

And worse was yet to come, the "distressed dolphin" tour and the rest of it.

Omen ignored: The single "Evangeline" shared a title with a Longfellow poem about a woman whose long-lost lover reunites with her only to die in her arms.

Milk and Kisses (1996) By far their least essential album, but it shouldn't be. The idea for this album was to get back to the 80s Cocteau sound, but too much water had passed under the bridge, Fraser's muse didn't make it to the sessions and there isn't much in the way of catchy riffs to lift the material out of the murk. 

It also doesn't help that Guthrie seems determined to produce the album to death. Several cuts here-- 'Tishbite', (the epithet of a famous Biblical UFO abductee) 'Violaine', 'Treasure Hiding' and 'Seekers Who are Lovers'-- worked very well live, freed of the smothering overdubs and boasting meaty live guitars and Fraser's full-throated mezzo, but the mopey Twinlights songs didn't disappear like they should have and subsequently drag everything down. 
UPDATE: Bla bla bla, shut the f**k up, Chris.  I've been listening to the Milk & Kisses remaster with real earphones and it's like the greatest opioid ever created. Or the greatest hallucinogenic opioid ever. Seriously, try it at home. 

It's apparently engineered to hit all those deep pleasure centers in the autonomic brain, so I'm thinking it's also packed to the hi-hats with weird alien subliminals from some distant star system. Plus, the guitars are a lot punchier and Liz is a lot more possessed than on Four Calendar Cafe

Fraser and Buckley were obviously back together at the time of the album's pressing if the "Love and a thousandfold rose" (oh, my) dedication are any indication, we already heard the songs and there was much better material on the b-sides, so what was the point exactly? A lost opportunity for a fitting swan song.  

Yeah, shut up, Chris. Stop listening to crappy MP3s you ripped back during the Clinton Administration.

Omen ignored: Besides including the songs from the fateful Rilkean Dreams video, 'Violaine' admonishes a lover (presumably Buckley) to "be careful, love, be careful, love." 

Lullabies to Violaine Vol 1 (1982-1990) The Twins put just as much essential music on their EPs as their LPs. This set starts off in witch-mode, with the ironically titled Lullabies filled with noisy post-punk sorcery. Peppermint Pig shows the band lurching towards dancepunk, but the real revelation comes with the orgasmic Sunburst and Snowblind, which culls 'Sugar Hiccup' from Heels and adds three equally good tracks, the aching crush song, 'From the Flagstones', the witchy howler 'Hitherto', and the pleading post-punk charger 'Because of Whirljack'. From then on it's one cathartic mindgasm after another, with only a couple duff tracks here and there. This is all pure post-punk Twins, beauty and terror in equal parts, with everything cranked to 11 but still sounding achingly beautiful. 

Tracks like 'Great Spangled Fritillary' and 'Pale Clouded White' sound ancient and irreducibly pagan, like lost transmissions from some Mediterranean mystery cult that bounced off the stars and back, with Fraser as priestess/horse, riding the fumes of the gods.  The last track, 'Watchlar', shows a road sadly not taken, a funky, synth-driven slow-burner that's as sexy as it is spooky. 

Lullabies to Violaine Vol 2 (1993-1996) This set is immeasurably less essential than the first but is probably a better investment than the last two studio albums, whose singles it culls. If the Twins were hedging themselves into a corner for their new label on their LPs, they were breathing quite a bit more on the b-sides and EPs (Fraser has since dismissed the Twins' post-4AD work).

None of this material is a patch on their original 4AD material but has some traces of the old fire and is considerably more adventurous and arty than you'd expect at this late date. One of the EPs has Seefeel's Mark Clifford doing ambient deconstructions of selected tracks and the long out-of-print Snow EP is here, including their priceless versions of 'Winter Wonderland' and 'Frosty the Snowman'. Not essential by any means, but worth getting if you get the bug. 

POSTSCRIPT: A few years back The Cocteau Twins were offered five million dollars to reunite and perform at the Coachella Music Festival in California. They initially accepted but Fraser pulled out at the last minute, infuriating her fans and her former bandmates. She's done some work-for-hire gigs over the years, none of which is a shadow of her work with The Cocteau Twins.

In 2012 she performed at the Meltdown Festival in England at the behest of Anthony Hegarty, singer of Anthony and the Johnsons. She performed a number of Cocteau Twins songs but in radically revamped arrangements that reviewers compared to 70s easy listening music. She's been sitting on a number of tracks for a solo album for over a decade now and many fans have given up waiting.

I think the fact that she essentially ended her career a few months after Buckley's death proves that the events affected her more powerfully than we can know. I can only hope she's found happiness in her new life, after having brought so much magic and beauty into this fallen, broken world.

* Some have speculated that Buckley may have committed suicide but the evidence is weak and tenuous; based mostly on the fact he made phone calls to old friends shortly before his death. 

But he had just finished material for a new album and was about to re-emerge from a self-imposed exile (he bragged to one friend he was going to "work his ass off" ), re-connecting with old friends makes perfect sense in that context. 
Buckley's comment to that same friend that he would see her "on the other side" was almost certainly a reference to the then-current Ozzy single, which was inescapable on rock radio at the time. 

His swimming fully dressed in the Wolf River sounds very much like a triumphal, "I am a golden god" rock star move- it would have been a natural act of celebration for an artist as history-minded as Buckley, who often swam there. All the more so given the fact that he was blasting "Whole Lotta Love" on his boombox (an extremely unlikely exit song even for a Zep fanatic, never mind a musical omnivore like Buckley) and jokingly comparing his voice to Cocteau Twins admirer Robert Plant at the time.

Locals have pointed to a number of accidental deaths on the Wolf River, noting that its placid surface hides a vicious undertow. Quite an apt metaphor for this particular drama.

The Buckley Estate responded to the usual post-mortem rumors with this statement: "Jeff Buckley's death was not "mysterious," related to drugs, alcohol, or suicide. We have a police report, a medical examiner's report, and an eye witness to prove that it was an accidental drowning, and that Mr. Buckley was in a good frame of mind prior to the accident."

There are at least seven finished tracks from the final Cocteau Twins album that Simon Raymonde rates as some of their best work. One of these, "Touch Upon Touch", is already in circulation, but Fraser is blocking the release of the rest. Here's hoping she comes around.

† The solo seems to appear 30 minutes into the actual running time of the music when gaps are accounted for. Thirty is an important number in this story, no?